Learning to Self Manage

For tweens and teens, self-control is connected to autonomy and other intrinsic motivators

January 17, 2018
Photo of a girl goofing around with her pencil in class

“Never give up!” “Be determined.” “If you dream it, you can achieve it.” We often see inspirational messages such as these coating school classrooms, broadcasting the idea that willpower equals success.

But the ability to exercise self-control — even with a specific, self-imposed goal in mind — is tough, even as it develops with age. New research illustrates just how precarious willpower can be for young people: Middle school students who want to achieve a goal and who actively agree to suffer a consequence if they don’t achieve it may still be unable to change their counterproductive behaviors. It’s a reminder for teachers that simply encouraging students to “stay focused” may not help those students cultivate positive habits.

A Commitment to Improve Behavior

A new study [PDF] examined how well middle schoolers responded to “commitment devices,” or voluntary agreements to limit future choices through restrictions or penalties for failing to accomplish a goal. For example, a person who wants to improve her math grade might ask a friend to change her Netflix password until she’s taken an arduous test; if she wants to eat healthier, she might deposit money into an account that she can only access after improving her diet.

Simply encouraging students to “stay focused” may not help them cultivate positive habits. Middle schoolers who want to achieve a goal and who actively agree to suffer a consequence if they don’t achieve it may still be unable to change their counterproductive behaviors.

In this case, researchers Carly Robinson, Gonzalo Pons, Angela Duckworth, and Todd Rogers looked at a middle school behavioral program in which students received a weekly “paycheck” (to use at a school store or as tickets for extracurricular activities) based on their behavior. The study tested whether the students’ behavior would improve if they chose to agree to lose 20 percent of their weekly paycheck if they didn’t instead meet a goal of increasing their paycheck by 10 percent.

The study included 1,205 students at five urban middle schools in the same charter system. The students were almost evenly distributed among fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. Fifty-two percent of the students were female, 74 percent identified as black, 25 percent identified as Latino/Hispanic, and 85 percent qualified for free or reduced lunch.

The students were sorted into three groups: an “opt-in group,” who were offered the choice of committing to a goal of earning 10 percent more, but losing 20 percent if they failed to meet it; an “opt-out group,” who were automatically enrolled in the intervention, although could choose to drop out; and a “control group,” who merely indicated they wanted to set a goal of increasing their paycheck.

When Self Control Isn’t Enough

For these students, self-control wasn’t enough. The middle schoolers who agreed to lose part of their paycheck if they failed to increase it were no more likely than their control group peers at increasing their paycheck. In other words, the researchers found no evidence that the commitment device had any effect on students’ behavior.

More specifically, 39 percent of the opt-in group, 37 percent of the opt-out group, and 37 percent of the control group, increased their paycheck by 10 percent — statistically insignificant differences.

“I think it’s an important first step for educators to recognize that young students want strategies that help them activate their self-control to achieve a goal,” says Robinson.

A Desire to Improve

We see here that middle schoolers want to improve their behavior, and that they recognize that they don’t have a lot of self-control. One-third of the students voluntarily elected to enroll in the commitment device, which indicates that they were looking for strategies to improve their performance — so much so that they were willing to risk part of their paycheck.

For teachers and behavioral specialists, this realization is key. “I think it’s an important first step for educators to recognize that young students want strategies that help them activate their self-control to achieve a goal,” says Robinson, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education specializing in human development.

Encouraging Positive Behavior

So how can educators help to foster meaningful, positive change? It starts with leveragjng students’ own desire to improve. “Instead of assuming that kids aren’t exerting enough effort or aren’t determined enough when they procrastinate on an assignment or losing focus during class, adults should be thinking about how together they can co-create environments that will set students up for success,” suggests Robinson.

Part of that means maximizing opportunities for student motivation. Research from experts Richard Ryan and Edward Deci has found that students are more likely to develop an inherent desire for growth if they are given autonomy over their tasks and how they can complete them, if they feel a sense of competence, and if they feel a sense of relatedness to and respect from their peers and teachers. The also found that students’ motivation will increase with the relevance of the work.

When students feel a greater level of intrinsic motivation, they’re more likely to persist in the face of challenges.

Teachers can use these insights to develop effective behavioral interventions, even at a small scale.

  • For example, rather than simply telling a particularly social student to move his seat when he starts chatting with his friends, ask him preemptively if he thinks moving would stop him from getting distracted later.
  • Or, rather than giving a student a book to read after she grows frustrated that she’s the first one to finish her assignment, suggest before class that she select a book to keep at her desk, in case she completes her work early.

In both of these cases, teachers are giving students agency over their behavioral supports, and they are demonstrating that they’re invested in the students performing well.

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K-12 Social-Emotional Wellbeing